Linguistic accommodation and philosophical debate

As I noted some time ago, the principal language of Indian philosophy was Sanskrit. For some thinkers, Sanskrit’s status as a philosophical language was a direct consequence of its privileged position with respect to meaning and truth: the Sanskrit language was itself eternal, and its words possessed an originary (autpattika) connection to meanings that are themselves eternal, and in other languages both the words and their connection to meanings are unstable, degraded, and fundamentally untrustworthy. For Buddhists and Jains, however, Sanskrit was just a language. They rejected the eternality of language, and especially of the Sanskrit language, and denied that Sanskrit’s relationship with truth was more direct than that of any other language.

But they still wrote in Sanskrit. Buddhists started writing in Sanskrit before Jains, but by the middle of the 1st millennium CE, almost everything that could count as philosophical discourse in India was composed in Sanskrit. There are good reasons to believe that the transition to Sanskrit broadly coincided with a reorientation of all philosophical schools from an “inward” to an “outward” perspective, that is, an engagement with philosophical opponents outside of one’s own tradition (see Eltschinger 2013 for a convincing account of this reorientation in sixth-century Buddhism). In some respects this transition is completely unremarkable—intersectarian debate requires an intersectarian language, and Sanskrit was the only viable candidate—and indeed very few authors actually remarked on it. But for Buddhists and Jains, writing in Sanskrit might be seen as acceding to the very ideology of language that had been used to denigrate and reject their own scriptures, or even as a violation of their preexisting commitments to vernacular language practices.

The 11th-century Jain philosopher Prabhācandra offers one way of thinking about the connection between the philosophy of language and the language of philosophy: provisional acceptance (abhyupagama). In his Moon for the Night-Blooming Lily of Reasoning (Nyāyakumudacandra), a detailed commentary on Akalaṅka’s Three Very Short Treatises (Laghīyastraya), a pūrvapakṣin claims that only Sanskrit words are correct (sādhu). One of the arguments the pūrvapakṣin is that even if you do not accept another person’s sacred texts, in order to convince other people, you still have to accept some mode of argumentation that could establish the validity of those texts, otherwise we’d have to leave all of our arguments aside and try to convince each other with mental constructs and hand-gestures:

śāstraprāmāṇyam anabhyupagacchatā ‘pi parapratyāyanāya sādhanadūṣaṇaprayogaḥ tatprāmāṇyaprasādhano ‘vaśyābhyupagantavyaḥ, tadanabhyupagame svaparapakṣasādhanadūṣaṇaprapañcapratyastamayaprasaṅgāt, kevalair manovikalpaiḥ aṅgasaṃjñābhir vā parapratyāyanānupapatteḥ.

Prabhācandra does not circle back around to this argument in the siddhānta. How could he? He is a Digambara monk, arguing at length against Mīmāṃsakas about the privileged status of the Sanskrit language and the Sanskrit grammar, and defending the communicative power of Prakrit and the legitimacy of vernacular language practices—but he’s doing all of this in Sanskrit. The strategy of provisional acceptance (abhyupagama) is immensely important to Indian philosophy in general: It’s necessary when, as if often the case, you don’t accept all of your opponent’s presuppositions but you nevertheless want to argue that those presuppositions would force him into different conclusions. Here, Prabhācandra’s pūrvapakṣin turns it into a gesture of accommodation that makes philosophical debate possible in the first place. Perhaps it’s stretching it too far, but this seems tantamount to the realization that discourse, philosophical discourse included, never occurs in a completely neutral space, but requires participants to acknowledge and adapt to social facts and asymmetries of power. And one of the implications of this realization is that you can’t simply wait around for hundreds of years for people to start speaking your language.

What other reflections do Indian philosophers offer on their own language practices? Are there other cases in which provisional acceptance (abhyupagama) serves as a strategy of accommodation? How does abhyupagama in this case relate to the Buddhist idea of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya)? 

References: Eltschinger 2013, “Buddhist Esotericism and Epistemology: Two Sixth-Century Innovations as Buddhist Responses to Social and Religio-Political Transformations,” pp. 171-273 in E. Franco (ed.), Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy (Vienna).

Prabhācandra’s Nyāyakumudacandra: ed. by Mahendrakumāra in the Māṇikcand Digambar Jain Granthamālā (Bombay 1938).

2 thoughts on “Linguistic accommodation and philosophical debate

  1. From my vantage point at least, this is a wonderful, intriguing post. Unfortunately, I lack the expertise required to address your questions (I particularly like the one about ‘skillful means’ in Buddhism), yet I possess sufficient temerity to attempt a comment.

    The idea of “provisional acceptance” (which is very close to the notion of a rebuttable presumption) occurs in ordinary conversations all the time as is recognized in contemporary philosophy (Donald Davidson, Paul Grice, David Lewis, among others). In the words of Robert Goodin,
    “In trying to make sense of others’ utterances, we apply a ‘principle of charity.’ We assume they are trying to talk sense; we assume they are asserting propositions they believe are true and relevant for the purposes at hand; and so on. As part of that process, we implicitly agree to ‘treat as true, for the purposes of the present conversation’ that set of background conditions which would render most coherent the propositions that our interlocutors seem to be asserting.”

    He also reminds us that the propositions we treat as provisionally true will vary from conversation to conversation.

    Goodin’s discussion arises in an explanation of what is thought to occur in “bargaining over beliefs,” the upshot of which is “not any change in people’s beliefs” (in our case, the respective views on the nature of Sanskrit) or even simply an “agreement to disagree,” but a settlement among the parties “to some course of action, together with some rationale as to how it is supposed to work to produce the desired results. In the course of that, they agree to certain beliefs ‘as if they were true.’” What is telling for the instant case is the notion that in—so to speak—“belief bargaining,” wherein we treat certain beliefs “as if true” for the purposes at hand, the specific purpose here is a collective endeavor, namely, philosophical argumentation among different philosophical “schools” (including differing views on the nature of Sanskrit). This nicely illustrates a collective (tacit? implicit?) agreement as to what the competing parties will do, and why (and is an exemplum of a special class of mixed-motive games called ‘bargaining games’). In such provisional-truth contexts, we are not committing ourselves to acting as if we believe these propositions are provisionally true or true simpliciter in any other situation (e.g., in communicating with non-philosophers or the masses). Identical interests trump, if you will, different perceptions (or beliefs) when the parties are in a collective action situation (requiring coordinated action) so as to at least enable them to pursue their shared interests, in their more public capacities, “without committing themselves to those beliefs in their private capacities and without necessarily committing themselves to those beliefs in any other collective-action contexts.”

  2. “There are good reasons to believe that the transition to Sanskrit broadly coincided with a reorientation of all philosophical schools from an “inward” to an “outward” perspective, that is, an engagement with philosophical opponents outside of one’s own tradition.”

    Really? As you note Buddhists began using Sanskrit “by the middle of the 1st millennium CE”. At this point I see no signs of interest in what the rest of India was thinking in Buddhist texts. The early Prajñāpāramitā texts are sometimes interpreted as a polemic against Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, but even if this is true, it is a purely internal debate. No, the first Buddhist Sanskrit literature is very much inward looking. Far more so that the earlier Prakrit literature.

    There are plenty of examples in Prakrits, especially Pāḷi but also now Gāndhārī (if only in Chinese translation), of engagement with the thought of Brahmins and Jains that was not accompanied by the use of Sanskrit. There seem to be prohibitions against using Sanskrit in early Buddhist texts. Though these passages are still disputed, the gist is clearly against standardised terminology. But we see Buddhists in debate with people of other religions throughout the early Buddhist canon without ever adopting their language. Perhaps partly because Brahmins were still relatively new to the Eastern Ganges Valley and as lacking the kind of systemic influence they later built up in royal courts.

    So the dynamic cannot be the one you suggest with respect to Buddhists at least. In fact it was more likely that increasing Brahmanisation of Buddhism caused Buddhists to adopt the prestige language of that group, not for the purposes of dispute, but as an expression of cultural *identification* with the mainstream of Brahmanical culture. Buddhists were adapting to India under Brahmanical hegemony in the Ganges Valley. The biography of the Buddha was thoroughly Brahmanised even before the adoption of Sanskrit: the Buddhist founder could hardly have a more prestigious and quintessentially Brahmin name than “Siddhārtha Gautama”.

    The various cultural conditions that surrounded the Tantric synthesis in the 6th century were really very different from those that existed 5 or 6 centuries earlier. One cannot generalise from 6th century back to the 1st.

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